We're Free to Be

“I’m not a runner,” I said to my friend. “I’ve been running. But I’m not a runner.” 

We were going on a thirteen-mile loop in the Madison Range south of Bozeman. It was the longest run I’d be doing since throwing my pelvis out of place in a ski accident three and a half years ago. After finding the right physical therapist, I was able to start running again this last spring. 

Photo by Blair Speed

Photo by Blair Speed

I’d been running three to five miles up to that point. My friend, CJ, had envisioned a traverse in honor of his sister, Inge Perkins. The original plan was a twenty-mile route following a line Inge and her good friend had once skied. 

CJ and I sat down for coffee. He spread maps across the table and showed me the route.

“Hmmm,” I said, looking at the elevation contours telling of the route’s 12,000-foot elevation gain and loss. “Maybe a shorter route would be more…enjoyable?”

We identified the 13-mile loop on the map. A few days later, we went into the mountains to scout the trail.  

I was nervous. The grizzly population in this particular stretch of wilderness is known to be healthy. I also knew I was running with a “real” runner. 

We took it relatively easy. The trail proved rolling, with a steady, but never stark, gain in elevation. On occasion the forest yawned opened into meadows with Taylor Creek meandering through sage and Balsamroot. As we ventured deeper and deeper into the wilderness, Woodward Mountain spread long and cliff-shrouded to our south. Eventually the trail grew faint and the pines thinned into a large meadow. There, beyond treeline, stood the austere Imp Peak. 

We forge creeks and bushwhacked our way through deadfall. Our goal: find a way to the saddle between Imp Peak and Woodward Mountain we had spotted on the map back in the coffee shop. We were two small humans folded into the world’s largest intact temperate ecosystem. Twigs breaking in the distant brought my hairs on-end. I focused on not breaking an ankle. At one point, a failed creek-leap had both my legs immersed in water.

The next day, I couldn’t walk down the stairs without the railing. My quads felt like planks of wood. I feared for the following Saturday, when we’d be doing the loop in its entirety. 

A group of ten people gathered in the trailhead parking lot. We stuffed bars into our backpacks’ brains and strapped bear-spray to our chests. Then, we ran. Well, we mostly ran. The group broke into smaller clans fragmented by speed. Going up to Alp Lakes, I wondered if I was holding people back. I asked again and again.

“This isn’t about running fast,” my friend reminded me. “It’s about being out here.”

I allowed her words to guide my pace. Why was I focusing on the “running” aspect of this experience? What was that all about?

At the top, surrounded by rugged peaks and the sugary-smell of sap, I sat on a boulder and looked out on the jagged horizon. The bowl of earth holding water and stone. The sky cupping us all. This earth: ancient, wild, ambivalent. I thought of Inge, of course, and the way she rarely talked about her climbing, running, or skiing endeavors. She spent more time in wild places like the one bracing me here than anyone I know.

Alp Lake, Madison Mountains

Alp Lake, Madison Mountains

I circled back to that question: why was I focusing on the running—of being or not being something? I’m not a runner, I had said. And yet I do run. I enjoy running. I (partly) ran to this point.

I realized the non-runner identity was a protective mechanism. Afraid of holding others back or looking weak or out of shape—of appearing incompetent, somehow—my words erected a wall. On this side, where I stood, I am not a runner; on the other side, I am. 

We know words live as forces of nature. The way we talk about ourselves, to ourselves, creates our reality. 

And so: why was I choosing to erect walls around myself? Why was I boxing myself in by saying I was—or wasn’t—something?

Again, I thought of Inge. We tend to create idolized versions of our beloved deceased, but I do believe Inge had managed, largely, to cultivate a spirit of curiosity and play when it came to her outdoor adventures. She ran, climbed, and skied. She did these things, and never did I get the impression that she felt herself better than others, or worse, for enjoying (and excelling within) these activities. 

Being up there, folded into the mystery and power of our planet, there was some sort of truth teasing at my conscious. Unable to grasp, fully, what it may be, I made the decision to run the entire way down. These two things—a nebulous epiphany and the decision to run back—seemed separate at the moment. 

I joked about beers waiting and a cold creek calling, but really, when we found our way back to the established trail, I wanted to run because I wanted to run. I had spent the entire way up creating unnecessary defenses about “not being a runner.” My body, now, was eager to move past the narrative. I was eager to move. 

Back at the campsite, I said how I’d like to run more, but I felt it would negatively affect my climbing. Blake pointed out how Inge disagreed with this common sentiment in the climbing world. 

“Yeah, but Inge was exceptional,” I said. 

There it was again: the language erecting a wall. I mean, Inge was exceptional, but maybe not be for the reason I was pivoting off of in this response to Blake. 

A couple days later, tasting the sweat from a four-miler, I put the pieces together. (This is one thing I LOVE about movement: while shaking the body, we’re shaking the mind, and some of my clearest thoughts surface while on the move.) 

What if, I wondered, there was no wall? What if I was neither a runner nor a not-runner, but a person who runs on occasion? What if I wasn’t climber, or not a climber, but a person who climbs sometimes?  

Think about the wild world—a place void of walls other than ones of stone and dirt, ones we can climb up and over. Think about a reality where our identities are not wrapped up in being or not being something, but rather being someone who enjoys things from time to time. 

As someone who has identified as a climber for nearly ten years now, this shift creates space for the ebb-and-flow nature of athletics. Sometimes I climb often. Sometimes I don’t climb at all. Every season is different. And yet I am me. I am a human being—not a human doing. 

When I shift this language, the walls begin to crumble and I feel myself expand. I am, you are not defined by what you do. Meaning, if we don’t climb as well or run as fast as we think we should, we are not better or worse for it.

We’re not enclosed in a box. We’re free to be. 

Photo by Blair Speed

Photo by Blair Speed

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